A recent Saturday, 5:45 p.m.
“Please leave key and vehicle unlocked,” reads the sign at the entrance to the 16th and Hoff parking garage. Three cars are lined up in front of the ramp. An aluminum birthday balloon and a pair of blue and white sneakers hang dejectedly from the telephone wire above three attendants in dress shirts and khakis.
The 16th and Hoff garage is located a block up the street from the 16th Street Mission BART station — an area one normally associates more with crime than valet parking. But the Mission’s become the place to be, and in the territory once dominated by drunks, there’s money to be made from those who want to be here but also want to protect their automobiles.
The garage stays open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. The rate from now until midnight is $2.50 an hour. The customary tip for valet service, according to CNN Money, is $2 to bring your car to you.
Matthew is the youngest of the three attendants. He says he just transferred to this garage, which is run by a company called Pacific Park Management. He’s unsure how long valet has been here. He turns to John, a white-haired attendant.
Eleven years, John says.
Matthew cuts me off. They’ve got work to do. Already, cars are lined up.
The first couple of cars that pull into the lot are families with young children. Now a mid-90s Accord stops in the driveway and out step five men and women, dressed entirely in black — pants and leather jackets.
A large woman, her eyes bloodshot, hands her key to Ray, the third attendant.
“If you hit somethin’ on that I’ll kill you!” she says. It’s hard to tell if she’s joking.
Ray just nods and smiles.
Two bearded men in their 20s pull up. They’re both wearing backpacks with half-empty water bottles sticking out the side.
Neither has any idea what they’re doing tonight.
We’ve just arrived from Yosemite, says one. San Francisco is the second part of their California tour, and they have a friend who lives in an apartment a couple of blocks away. They are from North and South Carolina.
I ask why they chose to leave their car in a valet garage. Convenience, the other says.
They tell the attendants they’ll return in 72 hours.
Business is booming. A huge group of people in dress clothes congregate at the toll booth. Perfume fills the air, making Hoff Street smell like an afternoon at Nordstrom.
I ask a well-dressed couple where everyone is headed.
The man doesn’t know, but likely one of the restaurants on Valencia.
The wind picks up. People shiver on the street and pull their jackets tighter.
There are now so many cars in this 98-space garage that they’re crammed all the way out to the tollbooth.
A blue Expedition tries to drive in anyway.
“Sorry, we’re full,” Matthew tells the driver.
The Expedition backs up. The driver sulks as he moves onto 16th Street.
John walks over and tells me he’s been here for 11 years, since the garage has been open.
“I’ve seen it all,” he sighs. “This very bad neighborhood.”
John says most of their valet customers are from the East Bay. Not all of them are friendly. He says people from Oakland like to come to the garage on their way to sell drugs around 16th and Mission.
“They park here,” he says. “I see what they’re doing. I’m not stupid!”
A young couple come into the garage to pick up their car. The girl wears thick black nerd glasses and the guy has a blue plaid shirt and buzzcut.
“This is the best location,” he says. “Nobody knows about it.”
“Is full! Full full full!”
John waves his arms and shouts at six cars — three on one side, two on the other. They all try to jockey for a spot in the same valet garage.
“We’re full, goddammit,” Matthew mutters under his breath.
A green Sentra pulls in. The attendants seem to recognize the driver. A free space to park the car inside the full garage magically appears.
John hands Ray some money and asks if he can get him a Diet Coke.
Ray has a gold ring in one ear and is the only attendant not wearing an embroidered name tag on his shirt. He asks if I want anything. I decline.
The lot much emptier, Ray calls the people who come in now the hit-and-run crowd. They’re just in the neighborhood to grab a snack or a couple of beers, he says. And Merry Christmas, they don’t need valet parking for very long.
Between 12 and 1, on the other hand, people like to come back and bilk a little extra time out of the attendants.
“Those are the troublemakers,” he says.
Over the past decade, one thing has changed about this valet garage for certain: Ray believes the neighborhood has gotten a lot better. Still, they seldom valet any Porsches or Maseratis here at 16th and Hoff.
The high rollers park at St. Mary’s valet garage downtown, on Kearny Street. It’s mostly businesspeople, Ray says, and the monthly parking rate is $800 compared to 16th and Hoff’s $300.
Those are impressive numbers, although Pacific Park Management’s website says the standard monthly parking rate at St. Mary’s is $390. The 16th and Hoff garage charges $180.
The people who come in are looser, feisty. Three flush-faced women and two men arrive to pick up their car.
“And she’s all, ‘Stove? What kind of name is Stove?’” one woman says.
The women laugh deep belly laughs and cram into the back seat of their Dodge Durango.
Another young couple. He’s wearing a navy blue sailor suit and she’s wearing a white sailor hat. They don’t say why.
Ray picks up a broom and starts singing “In the Navy” by the Village People.
The evening is winding down. The lot is less than half full. The attendants now tell people driving in to just park the cars themselves and leave the keys up front.
As I get ready to leave, two men in their 20s drop off their car and start talking with Matthew about how the evening is going.
Matthew hopes the two men get lots of action tonight.
One of the guys, bearded and wearing a backwards baseball cap, says he’ll bring Matt back a special lady friend just for him.
Meanwhile, Ray is still whistling “In the Navy” as he sweeps inside the garage.